By ZINIE CHEN SAMPSON
RICHMOND, Va. – Hundreds of opponents and supporters weighed in on proposed regulations that would allow state-licensed groups to turn down prospective adoptive and foster parents because of their sexual orientation, as a public comment period drew to a close earlier this week.
The Virginia Board of Social Services opened the 30-day comment period last month after gay-rights advocates complained about new regulations that were approved in April without a ban on discrimination based on sexual orientation, political beliefs, age, physical disability and family status. The groups had said the board stripped the protections from the proposed regulations without much public notice, and that the board discussed the issue in closed session without opportunity for public consideration of it.
While Equality Virginia, the ACLU and other groups have said the state shouldn’t allow discrimination, faith-based organizations have said it’s unfair to force them to go against their religious beliefs.
Virginia allows married couples and single people to adopt or become foster parents, regardless of sexual orientation, but bars unmarried couples- gay or straight- from doing so. Then-Gov. Timothy Kaine’s Democratic administration added the anti-discrimination provision in 2009, but it didn’t become a flashpoint for public debate until this year, when conservative legislators and groups complained.
By mid-afternoon Tuesday, there were more than 2,300 comments, both in favor of and against the board’s changes. More than 300 had been posted on the final day. The comment period closed at midnight Tuesday.
Catholic leaders and others weighed in to support the changes. Many posted comments of support for the removal of the discrimination ban under the identical headline “Preserve Religious Freedom” using template language the conservative Family Foundation posted on its website about the issue.
“I urge the Board to reject any regulation that would discriminate against faith-based child placement agencies,” many statements said. “Faith-based child placement agencies have a right, under federal and state law, to make decisions that are consistent with their religious beliefs, including their beliefs about marriage and family life. This right must be respected and preserved.”
Equality Virginia also has urged its supporters to speak out.
“The best interests of the child should be the sole factor in deciding whether a child should be placed with a prospective foster care or adoptive parent or parents,” wrote a person identifying herself as a “lesbian adoptive mother of two.”
The ACLU of Virginia said in its comments that it backs religious liberty and “strongly advocates for the right of each person to practice his or her religion consistent with the demands of his or her own conscience.” But when a private or religiously affiliated group performs what’s essentially a government function- including child placement and foster care- it cannot discriminate, the group said.
“Having chosen to act in the state’s capacity, these agencies must be held to the same standard as if the state had itself performed the contracted activities,” wrote Rebecca Glenberg, the group’s legal director.
John Dougherty of the Virginia Home for Boys and Girls said he was speaking out against the proposed regulations because they would limit the number of families that can provide permanent and stable homes for children seeking adoption.
“The Commonwealth can no longer afford to protect the business and financial interests of religious organizations who purport a mission to serve Virginia’s children and families while simultaneously putting barriers in place that prevent equal access for all Virginians,” he wrote.
The agency staff will give the board a summary of the comments after the comment period ends, spokeswoman Eileen Guertler said on Tuesday. The board isn’t required to act on the regulations within a certain timeframe but it will get a status report on the issue at its October meeting, she said.